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Psychology of optimism

Everybody knows that it is better to be an optimist than a pessimist in our life. A vast majority of us prefers the company of optimistic, positive-disposed people. We derive happiness from them. Thanks to them we find new energy which is essential for taking new challenges and actions. The optimist may restore our faith that life can be surprising and beautiful. Moreover it has been scientifically proven that optimists have a better life. They enjoy popularity and in comparison with pessimists they achieve more success on both professional and personal level. They are healthier. Then why so many of us look at the world with anxiety and distrust, are malcontents who spread aura of cheerlessness and pessimism.

We may seek for the answers to the above questions in the human process of education. When we get born, we know nothing about the world. Our way of perceiving the reality, people and ourselves is shaped by the personal experiences as well as the observation of other people behaviour (above all our family).

A child who grew up in a family, in which any failure took on the proportions of catastrophe, demotivation and helplessness pervaded, with a great probability would take over the same model of reaction, which bases on helplessness and anxiety. Constant focus on failures, negative information causes that the world appears to be terrifying, bad and full of traps. In their opinion it is better not to stick their neck out, not to take initiatives because all is for nothing. That might only expose them to another failure or problem. Such thinking does not bode well and is first step to depression.

The same happens in families, in which children were relieved at all activities. The child understands such ‘servile’ pose of the parent not as symptom of help, but comprehends it as its helplessness and uselessness: you are incapable of doing anything, you are unintelligent, you are too weak so I will do this for you. Permanent helping a child out, not allowing to do something its own way, it is from parents side a disservice which shapes and strengthens a so called sensitive helplessness.[1]

In many families such a hostile attitude towards other persons is observable. Another person is seen as an intruder who wants to bother, humiliate, do us wrong. Such an attitude makes new acquaintances impossible, has a negative influence on current acquaintances which makes families more hermetic. Whereas, in the child arises the conviction that another person equals a threat. There is no place for openness and kindness. The aggressive-defensive attitude towards others is observable and often a social isolation as well.

Considering a phenomenon of the origin of optimism and pessimism, it is worth to quote the results of research of Agnieszka Czerw, who specialises in the field of positive psychology.

Research concerned the influence of parents on the level of their children’s optimism.[2] On the basis of the achieved results it turned out, that out of both parents, the fathers have a bigger influence on the level of their children optimism[3]. Moreover an interesting interrelation has been found out, which indicates that on the positive thinking of children – ‘in case of daughters, father has a greater influence, and in case of sons – mother’.

Many factors show that it depends on the parent’s attitude, whether the child is a pessimist or it thinks about the future with hope and faith.

A question appears, whether there is a possibility to restore optimism at a person who was brought up in the conditions unfavourable to develop such a life attitude through no fault of their own or their own choice?

The answer to this question is affirmative. A well-known scientist of optimism Martin E.P. Seligman has created a kind of therapy (originated from the cognitive trend), which a superior goal is a change in the way of thinking and the interpretation of failures and problem by the pessimist. This therapy’s aim is to stop focusing on what he failed and to start seeing and believing that there are areas of his life, in which he is good, competent and successful. The therapy does not assume excessive glorification and exaggeration of successes. Its aim is not a creation of a view of the idyllic, ‘sugary’ world (‘pollyany effect’). On the contrary, the issue is to get the stage of realistic perception of reality, other persons as well as an appropriate assessment of one’s own successes and failures.

Moreover M.E.P. Seligman indicates that the basis of the change is the human’s mastery in skills such as:

  • automatic thoughts catching – sensitivity to negativisms appearing in mind such as: I am useless. I will never manage to do it. I am a loser and so on is a starting point to take up a struggle against ‘internal critic’. Persons who want to improve this skill are encouraged to do something what diverts their attention from it, the moment the negative thought appears. It mat be e.g. thumping the table, intentional looking out the window, saying a word ‘stop’, concentrating on a game with a dog and so on. The aim of those action is to stop the flow of negative thoughts;
  • assessment of negative thoughts – being aware that appearing negativisms and pessimistic thoughts are not true and usually do not correspond the reality. They have been ‘encoded’ in a way, but are the result of traumatic events, bad educational patterns, unfair assessments;
  • creation of rational explanations of thinking automatisms – a human often takes his thoughts as the one and only reliable source of information concerning the world and themselves. An attempt to escape form a trap of ‘their infallibility’ constitutes the first step to the real review of a situation. Exercising the skills of rational explanations of the negative thoughts, persons are asked for as frequent as possible comparison and checking of propagated opinions with other persons. It creates a chance to hear different, objective approach and points of views;
  • stopping disastrous beliefs – acquiring this skill manifests itself in blocking extremely negative, disastrous visions and imaginations in the moment of their appearance. Growing and uncontrolled negativisms lead often to entire demobilisation and stagnation.

Apart form the Steligman therapy, there are many other techniques and ways to develop optimism in us. Most of them do not require a presence of therapist or mentor and are not very costly. Only good intentions and readiness to take a change are necessary.

Having and making a list of one’s own dreams, sport activity, surrounding ourselves with people having positive energy, deriving happiness form small things, passion, smile, sense of humour,  reading books and articles, which lifts our spirits and lend wings to us are only some of them.

Bigger and bigger interest of scientists in the field of optimism, working out newer and newer techniques and ways of building optimism in people, let surmise that we can or even should learn optimism.

An enviable feature of optimists is proactivity that means an attitude, in which people are entirely responsible for the shape and quality of his life as well as relations in which they are involved. This is approach which is expressed by readiness to make changes, a struggle with possible reverses of fortune as well as the awareness of one’s own resources. This proactivity, which is distinctive for optimists, is an extremely significant element in the convalescence and rehabilitation processes. It is proven that persons of optimistic nature more quickly get better even after very serious operations.

Moreover ‘optimism plays a vital part in the subject of addiction’. R. Maxwell (1994) considers that overusing drugs and alcohol by young people leads to personality changes which may contribute to a fall in the level of optimism. Polish research (Bydgoszczanin, 1998) has proved that young people who overused alcohol were less optimistic than their teetotaller peers referring to a number of significant life possibilities such as: school career, future, frame of mind (everything is pointless anyway, I have no chance to make a success). Similarly Weiner (1985), making reference to Seligman’s idea, regards that the expectation of success in the struggle with addiction depends on the way one’s own successes and failures are perceived. The more previous successes are assigned to the stable and permanent casual factors, whereas failures – to unstable factors, which are not taken into consideration in relation to future efforts, the bigger expectation of success. According to the authors if someone tries to quit an addiction (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs), we should assume that in the past he made a number of attempts to do it, of no effect though. It is very important how to interpret the previous experiences. If they are assigned to uncontrolled or permanent factors, then that may cause a state similar to ‘learned helplessness’ – ‘nothing can be done’. Such person does not make any attempts to struggle or makes them without belief, because in their opinion a chance to win is too small or hardly possible. That pessimism is strengthened by the following failures overlapping the changes related to addiction.  Similar dependencies emerge among persons who struggle with obesity. Optimism plays a vital part in the general health of an individual (optimistic persons more rarely are sick) as well as when dealing with stress, including professional stress (Bańka 2000, Seligman 1995, Seligman and others, 2003)’[4].

The optimists, fighting with stress, resort to the efficient stress-oriented strategy. They approach the problem in an active, task way, they are looking for others’ support. Choosing the method of dealing with problems is determined by optimists by a few factors such as: determination in achieving goals, a cognitive curiosity about the world as well as a need to establish social relations[5]. As a consequence it makes optimists very efficient people.

Many people look at optimists with envy and irony aimed against their way of looking at the world through rose-colored spectacles. They are very often regarded as those who turned out well, whose life is paved with roses. Nothing more mistaken, they similarly to pessimists experience difficult or dramatic situations. The difference is that for an optimist the glass is half full and for a pessimist it is half empty…


Ewa Osowska


  1. Czerw A., Optymizm perspektywa psychologiczna, Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, Sopot 2009.
  2. Reber A.S., Słownik psychologiczny, Wydawnictwo Naukowe SCHOLAR Sp. z o.o, Warszawa 2002.
  3. Seligman M., Optymizmu można się nauczyć. Jak zmienić swoje myślenie i swoje życie, Media Rodzina, Poznań 1993.
  4. Trzebińska E., Psychologia pozytywna, Wydawnictwa Akademickie i Profesjonalne, Warszawa 2008.


[1] ‘Learned helplessness, the term introduced by M. Seligman in order to characterise the general opinion that helplessness is a learned state caused by harmful, unpleasant situations, which give no possibility to escape or avoid. In the experimental demonstrations on animals, which are the equivalent of this effect at people, the repeated shock with no way out, causes the dog to acquire some kind of pathological helplessness – so extreme, that, even if there is a way out later on, the animals does not use it.  What is more, preceding the described shocks by a few attempts to escape prevents from that syndrome further development.’ − Arthur S. Reber, Psychological Dictionary, Wydawnictwo Naukowe SCHOLAR Sp. z o.o, Warszawa 2002, p. 849.

[2] Badania prowadzone przez Agnieszkę Czerw; A. Czerw, Optymizm perspektywa psychologiczna, Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, Sopot 2009, p. 52.

[3] Ibidem, p. 57.

[4], [06.01.2011].

[5] A. Czerw, op. cit., p. 67.